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Know Your Value; And Charge For It

"Exposure is a camera setting, not a job rate."

I don't remember which one of my friends said that, but they nailed it and then, shortly on the heels of hearing that Ant Pruitt, one of my closest friends, said something on his podcast about this same subject about how people don't seem to have any shame when it comes to asking creatives for freebies.

Sometimes it's really insidious. A company (usually some unprincipled jerk) will contact a small photographer establishing themselves and tell them they need shots of their business or headshots or something similar, then offer to pay them in "exposure" meaning "I get your work for free in exchange for me putting your name out there." Other times it's a friend or family who knows you're a good photographer offering you the amazing opportunity to photograph their wedding or christening or quincinera or some other family function. For free of course, because family. There are so many times when as a maker or creative you're faced with the unscrupulous person trying to get work out of you for free that it becomes a running gag in your business and the question you often hear people ask is how do you get around it? Sadly there is no easy answer, and often when you do have to decline if you're a person with empathy you're going to feel some guilt even though you know it's smarter to decline than to accept, but the most important thing to do is to understand one thing: the only person who sets your value for your work is you.


The valuation of your photographs, your writing, your illustrations or designs, or even the things you make down in your shop are not drawn from what people will pay, although that's a factor. The valuation starts with you so here are a few tips to understanding not only that your work has value, but that it's okay to ask for that value and it's also okay to say no to work.


1. Understand the mechanisms that set the price for your work. Materials, planning, design, labor, and even things like gas and tolls if you deliver the final product. You don't have to "throw things in" just to keep your prices down. That's not to say you shouldn't if you can eat one thing to bring the price down and land a job, but doing that knowing you're doing it is a lot different from not taking it into consideration at all. Factor in everything, then offer your discount if you want to.


2. Never let someone guilt you into providing them something you charge other people for. If you're a professional writer, don't write someone's bio for their website because you feel bad saying no or that you don't want to do it for free. You're welcome to do freebies if you want, but you should do them willingly and not feel pressured into doing them. As someone who makes things I enjoy making gifts more than client work, but I have no qualms about charging people who ask me to make something. I may cut them a discount if it's something I've never made before or if I know the time will be excessive, but rarely do I do something someone asks me to do for free and if I do it's because I wanted to not because I felt obligated to.


3. If you get a "yes" every time you quote a price, your prices are probably too low. This is a tip John Malecki once said on the Made for Profit podcast and it resonated for me. As someone who's slowly ramping up their making business, I do get a lot of yesses, but for me right now my business model is designed that way. I understand I undercharge on some things, but that's done usually with the understanding put forth to the client that I'm offering that price in exchange for the fact that their work might be experimental. If it's something I've done before and I know the work involved, I'll charge the "right" amount and not bat an eye. One of my clients even thought I undercharged and paid me more than I quoted. That was an eye-opener, and next time I do similar work I'll probably charge more.


4. If someone is coming to you it's because you have expertise they don't. This is another one people get into trouble with all the time. If Client A is coming to you to take photos for them, they obviously believe you're capable of the job and think you bring expertise to the table. That's your leverage. That doesn't mean you rob them blind and smile while doing it, but it does mean that your pricing should reflect that they came to you as an expert in a certain field. If they balk at the price, politely remind them that they came to you because they respected something about your work." If they follow up with something akin to "I could have done this myself" then excuse yourself and leave and be glad you don't have to work with that kind of client. No one in a professional decision has a right to devalue your work, particularly after making contact with you, by saying anyone can do the thing they sought you out to do. Whatever it is. Your expertise made them contact you. If they claim otherwise, they're lying.


5. Focus on your portfolio, not the tools that built it. When I started in photography back in 2005, I got my first SLR camera; a Canon Digital Rebel XT. By the time I got rid of that camera, I had over 75k shutter clicks on it even though I had no idea how to use it for the first 4 months I owned it. It was silver, though, and I was told in no uncertain terms by a photographer friend of mine that I would never get professional work as a photographer with a silver camera. "It's not professional." I let my images speak for themselves, and while I wasn't actively selling my photos many of them made art exhibits in New York City, a book of local photographers in New York City, and I sold 3 different photos for a few hundred bucks each at a charity auction. They didn't ask about the camera I used and I didn't tell them. I took the shot and the shot spoke for itself. When you geek out about stuff you tend to obsess over gear, but remember that your value isn't in what you took the picture with, it's the picture you get. The same applies for woodwork, sculpture, writing, etc. To quote a good friend of mine, Scott Bourne, who is himself an incredible photographer:


6. Never ever ever start a presentation of your work with a laundry list of the mistakes you made making it. Woodworkers are particularly bad at this, and it's just endemic in creative minds. You make something, you make a mistake, and your first instinct when you show it to someone is to point out the mistakes or mention all of them and how you overcame all of them. The thing is, your client doesn't want to hear that. Every time you do that you're giving the person listening a reason to undervalue your work. You're essentially selling against yourself. Why do it? Sure it's nice to be honest, but if a flaw is so bad that it affects your final product, don't deliver the item and apologize for it. You'd be better off not delivering the product at all.


7. "I used you once before" is not a reason for a discount. A lot of people who hire creatives think that frequency of work demands a discount. You can do that if you want, but there's no standard that requires it. You are not obligated to cut your rate just so someone will use your services again. Your work's value doesn't change just because the person getting your work gets more of it.


These are just a few of the things that come to my mind when I think about my work, what I've experienced, and what the value of my work is. The bottom line, though, always boils down to one thing: the value of your work starts with you. Externalities contribute to it, particularly if your thing is making stuff for clients, but you have to understand that if you don't hold your work in high regard and believe in its value, neither will your clients. Manage your product's value correctly and you'll flourish, which is why we all do this in the first place.

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